Sparking Passions through Service Learning

Kate Highsmith, NBCTMay 21, 2019

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“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not,” is a familiar quote from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The summer before I was a fifth grader, I was swimming at the beach when a loggerhead sea turtle surfaced beside me sparking my passion for protecting the sea turtles of North Carolina. This is a passion I have continued to pursue over the past 25 years.  We must teach our children to care about big ideas that matter. It is these childhood passions, developed as young learners, that will carry through to adulthood..

One of the most effective ways I have found to engage my students and inspire their passions is implementing service learning projects. This year, my 1,100+ students at Weddington Hills Elementary School are participating in two school-wide service learning projects.  Students are given a voice in their learning by voting on the two service learning projects our school will focus on in the 2019-2020 school year.

Our current service project has the ambitious goal of raising $10,000 to help build a clean water well in another country by partnering with Charity:Water. On the first day of our first Change for Change week we only collected $178.  To my surprise, by the end of the week, we collected $2,869.59.  And not only did we raise money, but students were talking about it on their own.  In the hallway outside my classroom I overheard a conversation between two second grade boys.  The first student said, “Our money is going to build a well in Africa.”  The other boy replied, “Yeah, but how will we get the bulldozers there?”

Clearly, I had sparked a passion, and now I had to explain the reality and logistics of what was happening around the world.  By incorporating Scholastic Jr. Magazine articles, TED talks, and picture books, my students became informed and empathic about the world’s water crisis. All the hands-on activities I integrated helped to make the learning more concrete.  For example, students experienced carrying water in jerry cans and created 30 second Twitter videos about the water crisis.  These activities, while engaging, also aligned with national, state and International Baccalaureate (IB) standards:

  • National Standard for Elementary School Studies: The study of people, places, and environments enables our understanding of the relationships between human populations and the physical world.
  • NC Standard Elementary School Social Studies: K.G.2. Understand the interaction between humans and the environment by explaining the ways people use environmental resources to meet basic needs and wants.
  • IB Primary Years Program Unit of Study: Sharing the Planet. Line of Inquiry- Challenges, risk, and opportunities that children encounter locally and globally.

My students were beginning to feel empowered beyond the classroom.  One first-grade student took action by bringing in money from her own piggy bank and encouraged others to donate.  Her action inspired other students to do the same.  As of today, we have collected $9,400, and I know we will reach our goal soon.

As a 21st century educator I believe we all share the responsibility of educating our students on how to be global citizens.  Through email collaboration, the same water crisis service learning project has been incorporated into an English classroom at a local high school where students are reading A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.  The English teachers created lessons that addressed English standards and allowed students to participate in hands-on activities that sparked their curiosity.  The novel study is made more real, more impactful, and more engaging by allowing students to create a fundraiser at their school.  Like the protagonist in the book, these high school students are a part of building a well in a third-world country.  They are working with an organization that will provide GPS coordinates and photographs of the finished project, so they can see that their actions have tangible results.

We must encourage our students not only to believe they can change the world, but also empower them to believe that their time is now.  My students are changing the world because they “care a whole awful lot.”

Kate Highsmith, NBCT

Kate Highsmith, NBCT

Kate Highsmith is a teacher in Concord, NC and the Cabarrus County School District’s Teacher of the Year. Kate is a former high school art and English teacher, but in 2017 she was given the opportunity to combine her two passions for teaching and global awareness into the Global Inquiry and Design Class at Weddington Hills Elementary School. Follow her on Twitter @WHES_Global